As crowds lined up in front of the Capitol last week, Christian imagery was on display amidst the Trump/Pence 2020 and Confederate flags, QAnon memorabilia, and viking helmets. People held crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” banners. As protesters crowded onto the Capitol steps, across the street, someone blew a shofar while a woman sang “Peace in the name of Jesus. The blood of Jesus covering this place.”
In the aftermath of the Capitol attack, many saw a clear connection between the violence and Christian nationalism. As Tish Harrison Warren wrote for CT:
The responsibility of yesterday’s violence must be in part laid at the feet of those evangelical leaders who ushered in and applauded Trump’s presidency. It can also sadly be laid at the feet of the white American church more broadly.
Paul D. Miller is professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He recently released Just War and Ordered Liberty and is currently finalizing a book tentatively titled Christian Nationalism in the Age of Trump for InterVarsity Press.
Miller joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to define Christian nationalism, shed light on its rise in the white evangelical world, and offer advice to church leaders trying to deradicalize members of their own community.
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Some of Whitehead and Perry’s Christian nationalism numbers
Music by Sweeps
The transcript is edited by Yvonne Su
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode 247
How do you define Christian nationalism?
Paul D. Miller: It’s easiest to define Christian nationalism by contrasting it with Christianity. Christianity is a religion. It’s a set of beliefs about ultimate things: most importantly, about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's drawn from the Bible, from the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed.
Christian nationalism is a political ideology about American identity. It is a set of policy prescriptions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. It’s not drawn from the Bible. It draws political theory from secular philosophy and their own version of history as well. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry wrote a great book last year about Christian nationalism called Taking America Back for God. They say Christian nationalism is a cultural framework, a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems.
It idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. That's a great way of understanding it. Christian nationalism believes that the American nation is defined by Christianity and that the government should take steps to keep it that way to sustain and maintain our Christian heritage. It’s not merely an observation about American history. It is a prescription for what America should do in the future. We should sustain and continue our identity as a Christian nation. That’s Christian nationalism.
Perry and White have five questions that they ask to measure people’s adherence to Christian nationalism. One of them is whether people agree with this statement: “I consider founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to be divinely inspired.” What’s your view on that?
Paul D. Miller: If you believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, that puts you high up on the scale of Christian nationalism. You don’t get much more Christian nationalist than that. Sometimes social scientists talk about the ideal type of a thing. In other words, its logical conclusion, its purest form.
I think that any kind of nationalism in its purest form is religion. It is idolatry. That’s true of Christian nationalism. It takes Christian symbols, rhetoric, and concepts and weaves it into a political ideology that in its ideal form is idolatrous. I’m not saying everyone at the riot is an idolater, because I don't know if they hold the ideal type of Christian nationalist ideology. That’s the virtue of recognizing it as a sliding scale. People fall all along this scale, but at the extreme is an idolater.
Should we be considering Christian nationalism a worldview, like secularism and modernism? To what degree should we think of Christian nationalism as a comprehensive set of worldviews that if you have this belief, you will probably have that belief?
Paul D. Miller: I prefer the language of ideology, that Christian nationalism is a political ideology. Ideology is a linked set of normative ideas about the social and political order, specifically how society and politics should be ordered.
It's linked ideas, but it has an art to it. It says, “Here's the story of the world and how the world should be.” It gives me a role to work to bring that world to pass. That's what an ideology is. It’s true of socialism, Marxism, and fascism. It’s true of nationalism of all stripes, including Christian nationalism. I tend to use that kind of language. It's more common in literature and political theory.
How broad do we think Christian nationalism is? How influential are these claims? How far are they spread?
Paul D. Miller: Whitehead and Perry measured this and they say that 52% of all Americans are what they call ambassador. Then there are accommodators, people who are adjacent to Christian nationalism, tolerant of it, and accepting enough that they're not going to get in the way. 78% of self-identified evangelicals are either ambassadors or accommodators of Christian nationalism. It's really important to recognize that distinction, by the way, that the ambassadors are a smaller group. They’re the hardcore ideologues who spend time developing the energy, thinking about it, praying about it, and advocating for it, writing their congressmen, and attending the riot.
My response to those two groups is different. I think the ambassadors are the wolves and accommodators are, frankly, the sheep who need teaching, wise correction, and counsel to help them think more clearly about the ideology that they've been fed. I think the ambassadors are the deceivers and they need to be expelled and rejected, but the accommodators are the ones that need gentle correction if they'll accept it.
Would say that singing patriotic songs, displaying American flags and saying the Pledge of Allegiance in church fall under Christian nationalism?
Paul D. Miller: For the most part, I'd say it does. I want to be clear: I'm a patriotic American: I've served in the United States Army. I'm a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. I take my kids to the 4th of July parades. I read the Declaration of Independence to them on the Fourth.
There's nothing wrong with what I would call patriotism. In fact, I think we should be patriots because that's the best guardrail against the unhealthy kinds of nationalism. I'm proud to be an American but there is a time and a place for it. There are appropriate boundaries around that and I think the church is not the right place for that. I very much advocate for taking flags out of church buildings. Not because we hate America, but because when we're in church, we are celebrating our citizenship in a different polity in the kingdom of heaven, which is a kingdom that includes all peoples drawn from every people, language, and nation on earth.
That’s a wonderful thing and that’s why the American flag does not belong in a church building. Similarly, I would not advocate singing patriotic songs in church. I'm a little cautious about many churches celebrating, for example, Memorial Day weekend and doing a special shout out or thank you to veterans. That’s a gray area. Some churches go too far and hold big patriotic festivals on the weekend.
Do these churches tend to be more Southern or more rural? A number of us who have grown in the church have been blind to how common some of the God-and-country extremes of Christian nationalism congregations are.
Paul D. Miller: It is unevenly distributed around the country. This is more common in the South with a strong representation in the Midwest. It is stronger in rural areas and smaller towns, less common in bigger cities. There's also a class and education distinction here, more common in the lower middle class and more common amongst the population that does not have a college degree.
In certain parts of the country, you never see anything except this kind of God-and-country co-celebration. I'm from Oregon. I didn't grow up in the South, but I've traveled. In the military, I was based in the South for part of my time, where I saw some of this more up close. The regional distinction is important to keep in mind.
What is the draw of Christian nationalism to the “poor, uneducated, and easy to command” Religious Right, as they’ve been described? There was the rise of the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s, but it has gotten louder lately.
Paul D. Miller: From the time Europeans stepped foot on North American shores, they thought of the polity. They were building here in religious terms. It’s always been part of the kind of European Christianity that was imported here. It’s a version of Christendom, this blending of sacred and secular identities to makes sense of the universe.
Some Americans during the founding thought that America was the new Israel. They wrote it that way and they felt that the revolution was a step forward in the building of the kingdom of God. It was the case during the Civil War, which was this righteous crusade against an evil slave power. They use that sense of self-righteousness to construct a form of American nationalism that was highly Christian mystic and was unhelpful.
Over the past hundred years, as America has grown less Christian and less white, it has put the white Christian conservative population on the defensive. We feel like the world's against us. We're shrinking, our power is shrinking, our influences are shrinking against all of the other forces in the world.
Non-Christian and foreign influences are now controlling our country and taking it away from us. In the last 40 years, Christian nationalists tend to believe that Christians are under attack and are being persecuted. That leans towards a worldview that increasingly includes a lot of fear: us-versus-them dichotomy, forces beyond our control are steering events against us. I think it is why today's Christian nationalism is different than past generations and why it bleeds over into some of the conspiracy theory stuff as well.
To what degree is Christian nationalism a view of God being extremely active in the world, shaping the nation through sovereignty?
Paul D. Miller: If you ask me, should the United States try to adopt Christian values? I would say yes because as Christians, we are called to work for justice and the common good, and to care for the poor.
Those are Christian values and I think our country should pursue that. That doesn't make me a Christian nationalist. I think we should be involved in the public square. We should advocate for justice drawn from our understanding of justice that comes from the Bible.
That's not Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is an argument about American identity: We are a Christian nation and we must remain. The distinctive belief of Christian nationalists is that God especially favors the United States. There’s an overlap between that and legitimate Christian engagement in politics. Religious liberty and the unborn are what Christian nationals advocate.
When we criticized and condemned Christian nationalism, that is not a criticism of all Christian political engagement at all. In fact, we need to remain involved in politics to take back the name of Christ and say, “we don't think that the name of Christ belongs on that agenda.”
What exactly happened during the 2016 presidential election and subsequent four years, that changed the influence of Christian nationalism?
Paul D. Miller: Commentators will say it was so unlikely that Trump would capitalize on Christian support because of his personal conduct. But if you look at his campaign and his rhetoric, he was explicit about pitching his campaign towards Christians. For example, in June 2016, he said “We will respect and defend Christian Americans.” In January he said, “Christianity will have power.” No other candidate ever came close to being that blunt about championing Christian power. That's Christian nationalism in a nutshell, advocating for Christian power rather than Christian principle. Many other candidates advocate for justice, a Christian principle, but Trump said he will champion Christian power. That's why he struck such a deep chord among many white evangelicals. That was their political program for decades, Christian power. It turns out to matter more than Christian principles.
What’s the connection between white nationalism and Christian nationalism?
Paul D. Miller: We need to recognize that the alt-right and white nationalism are straightforwardly racist. They explicitly equate Western civilization with European DNA. They rarely talk about Christianity except to claim it as part of the Western or European heritage, the heritage of Christendom.
Christian nationalism would not claim that whites are inherently superior on the surface level. If you dig a bit deeper, you'll find that Christian nationalists and white nationalists, agree on a range of subjects. For example, if you ask whether racial inequality in America is primarily due to individual merit or due to structural systemic factors, Christian nationalists and white nationalists would agree it's due mostly to individual merit. They would both advocate for strong immigration restrictions. They would reject that systemic racism exists. There is a difference, but there is some overlap in those underlying attitudes.
How should we view the different effects Christian nationalism has on whites and non-whites?
Paul D. Miller: White Too Long by Robert Jones is another book on this. He’s a pollster who found that Black Christians and white non-Christians tend to see the world one way, while white Christians see it another way. This shows that white Christians’ distinctive worldview can't be simply a function of their Christianity. Otherwise, Black Christians would agree with them. It can't be simply a function of whiteness. Otherwise, white non-Christians would also agree with them.
There is some distinctive interaction between whiteness and Christianity, which means that white evangelicalism is now an ethnoreligious historical community with its distinctive worldview and its own way of interpreting reality. That is not Christianity. It is white Christianity or Anglo Protestantism. It's a distinct religious socio-cultural tradition that has emerged in the transatlantic area over the past three centuries in the United Kingdom and the United States.
You can talk about the unique historical contribution of Anglo Protestants, but it's also true that they seem to be uniquely blind to the realities of a racialized society. That's my best answer to what's going on here: white evangelicalism is not anymore a grand tradition of religious reflection and practice. It has become increasingly a narrow, provincial ethnic-religious community that is simply advocating for its own perks, power, and privilege.
How do we begin to address Christian nationalism and white Christianity, and can the two be disentangled?
Paul D. Miller: I don't think you can disentangle those things at all. Any question about race in America is a political question. Part of the answer has to be a reminder that our religion transcends any particular historical community. To the extent that we are finding ourselves becoming too narrow in our Americanness or whiteness, we need to expose ourselves to critiques from people of other traditions and other communities.
On an individual level, if you find yourself in this situation, go find somebody who is from a different tradition and just sit and listen. You don't have to have an awkward conversation about the Capitol riot. You could try to deepen your friendships with those of different cultures, communities, and traditions than you are. That’s an important step.
We can also remind Christians of the long tradition of good stuff in Christianity. Frederick Douglass is an American Christian and he gave good sermons about the nature of the American experiment and its relationship to Christianity. He did that not as somebody who criticized Christianity but rather used his Christianity to criticize the white American church. Let's read Frederick Douglass and learn from him so that we can learn how to distance ourselves from the unsavory parts of the white churches past and cultivate the best of American Christianity.
When people think about this insurrection, they will be thinking about the fake news and dishonesty of the leaders of these people that brought them there. When you think of Christian nationalism, to what extent is this dishonesty embedded?
Paul D. Miller: Tragically, I think more people probably genuinely believe what they're saying than consciously lie about it. At the lay level, it's probably more a problem of hardheartedness and closed ears. It's a problem of pride: a refusal to listen, a refusal to reevaluate their beliefs in the light of reality. It's a refusal to recognize facts as facts. For Christian nationalists, their preconceived beliefs about America and Christianity's relationship with America is now more important than reality to them.
They hold onto their beliefs in the face of conflicting reality. They invent a way to explain these aberrations and that's exactly what gives rise to conspiracies. Conspiracies are a way of explaining reality way and taking refuge in fantastical beliefs.
What would be the catalyst to get people to a place where they begin to doubt those beliefs? What might get people into a self-critical or self-reflective mode?
Paul D. Miller: I used to work for the United States government on terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. We talked about de-radicalization efforts to change the terrorists’ minds and convert them to a non-terrorist worldview. That's a helpful framework. We found that these programs work best when they were locally driven when they involve strong institutions of civil society, like mosques, religious institutions.
When they reintegrated these former extremists into strong local communities, these communities would give the former extremists a sense of belonging, purpose, and identity separate from their old affiliations. Predominantly white churches are led by white leaders who recognize the threat of Christian nationalism, and they need to adopt a different or additional understanding of the church's mission. 78% of self-identified evangelicals are supporters or accommodators of this ideology. That's tens of millions of people. The church must always confront false teaching.
It's also the church's job to confront sin. Some people took the name of Christ and they were involved in public sin by engaging in riots and even political violence. It's the church's job to proclaim the name of Jesus and call out false gospel.
The church has to preach the truth and build thick forms of community that give people meaning, purpose, and belonging, separate from our political lives. That is an essential part of treating the loneliness, fear, and anger of the alienation that many Christians feel, and that is leading them into the Christian nationalist movement.
Do you think that the way that we work with those who have been deceived should look the same as the way that we seek to reach out to and confront leadership?
Paul D. Miller: There’s a distinction between the ambassadors and the accommodators. The hardcore ideologues need rebuke; for example, Eric Metaxas and how he has gone hard in the direction of pro-Trump advocacy and Christian nationalism. I disagree with him and I think that he's harming himself, the nation, and the gospel.
That is different from the accommodator, the people in the pews. They need love and they need community. The church is not just a place you go to for a good lecture about the Bible. It should be a place where you go to live out the gospel in community with others, where you serve the church and you serve your neighborhood in love. Those roles that give you meaning, purpose, and belonging should draw you away from the unhealthy political expressions that we're seeing out there.
If you were going to start something like reprogramming nationalist beliefs at your church, how might it look?
Paul D. Miller: I would not recommend the pastors stand up and try to deliver a sermon against Trump or the right. It's probably not the best place to start. I do think pastors need to preach correct political theology and eschatology. They need to preach about the kingdom, that Jesus is our King and His kingdom is not of this world.
Pastors need to say from the pulpit that America is not a new Israel. There's a lot of Christians who seem to be confused about this. America is wonderful but it is not a new Israel. The church is the new Israel.
We need to say that loudly. It’s a kind of remedial theological education that we need, but we need it. I recommend books by Jonathan Dodson, a friend of mine who writes about gospel-centered discipleship. He co-authored one called Called Together: A Guide to Forming Missional Communities. It is living the gospel together in discipleship and community, and service to the church and the neighborhood.
It’s also outward facing to the world. It's serving them to make the world better. We are called to do good works and that's what this looks like: when we form these kinds of communities and small groups.
More than just Bible study, it's also living it out in service. That's the kind of thing that gives people belonging in the church of Jesus, to our neighborhoods, and the world in a way that is the opposite of Christian nationalism.
What’s another way in which churches can help to disciple people into being citizens of Christ’s kingdom and out of Christian nationalism when pastors only have one hour a week with folks?
Paul D. Miller: I have a two-pronged answer. One is that pastors, even from the pulpit, can start calling out some of this. I normally wouldn't say that, but I do think the problem is so severe of news consumption and being formed and catechized by secular media.
Pastors in shepherding should warn the sheep against falling off a cliff and falling for lies from the enemy. They should warn people against both the volume of time they spend on this and also particular sources of disinformation and deceit.
Pastors can call out “How much time are you spending a day listening to Fox News and talk radio?” We need to learn the skill of critical analysis of the news sources we get. Pastors can exhort the congregation to do that.
How do pastors pick which battles to fight regarding who and what they call out?
Paul D. Miller: It's partly about courage, but it's also about how no white evangelical pastor is shy about preaching abortion and about the right. They’re not shy preaching a sermon about the imperative of religious liberty.
There are a few issues that belong on our list. Racial justice belongs on that list. Abiding the law and Christian nationalism itself belongs to that list because it has come to deceive. 77% of self-identified evangelicals are in this movement. I want pastors to recognize it has now come to be a serious problem. It's time to start addressing this directly from the pulpit as one of those few political issues that they need to address.
The other and probably more influential one, in the long run, is the community. I sense that many churches focus on preaching and let community maybe happen on its own. I think building the community is as important as the preaching because that's where the preaching comes to be lived. It’s where accountability happens. Who's going to warn the guy I sit next to in the pew, a retiree who goes out for coffee once a week, to not watch Fox News five hours a day?
Is it the pastor? No, it's more likely going to be the guy who sits next to him in the pew who invites him over for dinner every other week. That's where the more meaningful measures of accountability are going to happen, but it won't happen if churches aren't purposely building a community that gives people the role of holding one another accountable.
That's that is what churches are for. I'm not sure it's happening at the scale we needed to.
For our non-American listeners, how might you suggest that they pray for the United States right now?
Paul D. Miller: Pray for justice and pray for peace. Pray for clarity and truth. It seems to me that we're in a moment where again, pride is taking precedence over truth. We need humility to hear the truth. Pray for the rebukes that need to be spoken, to be spoken with courage, but also with love. Pray for gentleness in how we reach out to not the leaders, but the followers of this movement. Pray for gentleness and how we reach out to them and lovingly plead with them to steer away from the danger of this movement.